Key Verse: 7:59
“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’”
In the last passage we learned the principle of the early apostles in doing God's work. They gave their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word of God. It required a definite decision. In the midst of many problems, they remained focused on the word of God and prayer. Then the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly. Today’s passage is Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin. Stephen’s speech contains four important spiritual components-observation, meditation, application, and testimony writing. We all like observation and meditation but we don’t like application like the Sanhedrin members who enjoyed Stephen’s Bible presentation but got mad when he connected the history of Israel replete with rejection and rebellion to them. They did not learn from their mistakes but repeated the failures of their fathers. They stoned Stephen to death. Let’s learn how to apply God’s word to our practical life through Stephen’s faith and spirit. May God bless us to have a sense of history and to become bold witnesses of Jesus for our campus students by depending on the Holy Spirit.
PART I. STEPHEN’S SPEECH TO THE SANHEDRIN (7:1-50)
Part I consists of observation and meditation. Stephen was one of the seven deacons chosen by the church members in chapter 6. Acts 6:5 describes him as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Stephen had faith in Jesus. He accepted Jesus’ death and resurrection personally. His sins were forgiven and he received the gift of eternal life in the kingdom of God. Moreover, through faith in Jesus, Stephen received the Holy Spirit and he became an indispensable member of the Jerusalem church. But out of envy his opponents accused him of blasphemy. Look at verse 1. The high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?” He referred to their false charges that Stephen had spoken against the temple and the law. But Stephen did not answer to his question. Rather, he gave them the review of Israel’s history. It is important to know the history of God in the Bible like Stephen. I have a great respect for history majors though they have hard time to get a decent job. Stephen opens his defense by giving a sketch of the patriarchal history until the appearance of Moses. The patriarchal history in the speech seems to contain little applicable to the accusations brought against Stephen. Why did he speak about Abraham? They all knew the story of Abraham and were proud to become the descendants of Abraham. They all were connected to Abraham. Stephen found a common ground in Abraham. When Stephen spoke about Abraham, they were silent and ready to listen. In Stephen’s speech we can learn the contents of his faith in God.
Look at verses 2-3. “To this he replied: ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. “Leave your country and your people,” God said, “and go to the land I will show you.”’” The history of Israel began when God called one man, Abraham, to obey his command. Though he was childless, hopeless, helpless old man, Abraham obeyed God’s command absolutely. He risked his life to obey God. But God did not give him anything in his hand. God gave him only a promise. It was a great promise, that he and his descendants would possess the land of Canaan. There was no son, no land, but still Abraham believed God’s promise. These days people say, “Show me God and then I will believe.” Though it was incredible, Abraham believed and God fulfilled his promise. M. Joseph and Monica Jun left us five years ago not knowing whether they could return to Washington or not because it was impossible for them to get visas. But they believed God’s promise and left their belongings in my basement saying, “we shall return by faith.” God blessed their faith and they returned last night. God blessed Abraham and made him a blessing. God gave Abraham a son, Isaac. The promise and the covenant were passed on to Isaac, and later to Jacob and the twelve patriarchs. What is the bottom line message here? The key point of Abraham’s life is obedience. Sanhedrin members boasted that they were the descendants of Abraham and should imitate his obedience. But they were not obedient to God. Stephen pointed out their spiritual problem through the example of Abraham. Though they claimed to be Abraham’s children, they were not doing the things Abraham did. (John 8:39)
Verses 9-16 are the story of Joseph. Look at verse 9. “Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him.” Joseph’s situation was similar to Jesus’ situation. Out of his brother’s jealousy Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt. Jesus was accused falsely out of the jealousy of the Sanhedrin. Both of them were rejected by their own brothers but God used them anyway. God turned their rejection to save their lives. God used Joseph to solve seventy-five people’s visa problem because he was the prime minister of the Egyptian empire. God’s good purpose for Joseph prevailed over all the evil of men. The faith of Joseph overcomes evil with good. Stephen had this faith and he knew that out of their jealousy he was accused. But he did not try to save his life. He used this opportunity to remind them that they devised against Jesus but God raised him from the dead and used him to save us from the sufferings of sin and death. Stephen believed the sovereign will of God over all human affairs including injustice and suffering. Like Joseph we should find God’s purpose in our sufferings.
Verses 17-38 are the story of Moses. Moses’ life can be divided into three parts- the first part as a prince of Egypt, the second part as an exile, and the third part as a spiritual leader. He was born in the most fatalistic situation. His life was in danger as soon he was born. He was born in Egypt to the Hebrew parents. God used Egypt as a birth place for his people to increase in number and grow into a great nation. For many years they lived a comfortable and pleasant life in Egypt. But as the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, a treacherous king came to power who mistreated and abused the people of Israel badly. He even forced them to throw their newborn babies into the Nile River to drown. Pharaoh became a baby killer. At that time, God was raising up a leader to lead his people. God chose Moses. Moses was born with God’s special purpose for his life. God spared Moses by moving Pharaoh’s daughter to accept him as her own son when she heard his cry. As we saw in the movie “Prince of Egypt”, God made Moses a prince in Egypt, where he received a palace education and became powerful in speech and action.
Moses appeared in Egypt to the oppressed Israelites as a messenger of peace and tried to bring about harmony among his own people. But he was at once rejected and compelled to take refuge in the desert. Moses fled to Midian to live as a foreigner with his sons. He lived with a sense of rejection and failure. His human dreams and ambition ebbed away. Forty years passed by. Then an angel appeared to him in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When Moses went to investigate, he heard the Lord’s voice: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (32). Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look. In the past Moses was very confident that he could lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. But now he realized that apart from God he could do nothing. At last, he was useful to God and the time came for God to work through him. Look at verse 33. “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground” (33). Moses thought that the exile land in the desert was the land of sorrow and failure and humility. But it was the holy ground because it was the land where God was with him. Many of us have a sense of failure on our campus because it looks like a spiritual desert. The campus looks like unholy ground due to many memories of rejection and suffering, but to God it is our holy ground because God has a great plan to rescue many lost sheep at this University. God will raise up many great missionaries and national spiritual leaders among them. In verse 34 we find God’s presence among the Israelites. “I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt” (34). Sometimes we felt that God forgot us. But God never abandons his people. He always hears our groaning sounds and sees our sufferings and watches over us like a good shepherd. God trains us in our sufferings. God was faithful to his promise to Abraham.
Stephen emphasizes that the same Moses who was rejected by his people was appointed by God to be their ruler and deliverer. We see a parallel between Moses and Jesus Christ. God sent Jesus as the promised Messiah to his people Israel. They rejected Jesus publicly and put him to death. But God raised Jesus from the dead. Through his resurrection, God declared with power that Jesus is the Son of God and the promised Messiah (Ro 1:4). Look at verse 37. “This is that Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.’” Jesus is the prophet like Moses. Like Moses, Jesus is deliverer and mediator. Moses delivered the Israelites from Egypt, led them through the Red Sea and then through the desert for forty years. It was completely impossible by human strength, but by God’s strength all things were possible. God gave Moses power to do wonders and miraculous signs. Jesus came to deliver men from the bondage of sin.
As a mediator, Moses was humble enough to understand his suffering people. He was also humble enough to listen to the voice of God on the mountain. He received the living words of God and passed them on to his people. This became the Pentateuch. How did they treat Moses? Look at verse 39. “But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.” The rejection of Moses is linked to the rejection of the laws and customs which Stephen had been accused of trying to subvert. Stephen likened their rejection of Christ to the rejection of Moses. It was not Stephen who violated the law of Moses but it was the Sanhedrin members who rejected the law of Moses which pointed to Jesus as the Savior of the world. By nailing Jesus they violated the law of Moses. It was clear to them when Stephen reminded them of the story of Moses. That’s the reason why they were not upset but were listening to his speech quietly.
Verses 39-43 show us another dark side of Israel’s history in their disobedience, idolatry and exile. Though Moses was sent by God, the people of Israel refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. This was not a small decision. When they rejected God they immediately became idol worshipers. Their sin of idol worship provoked God to anger and God turned away from them. They became slaves of idol worship, accompanied by materialism and sexual immorality. Finally, God punished them severely. Many of them died in foreign invasions and the remnant went into exile in Babylon. Here Stephen is warning the religious leaders that their refusal to obey Jesus would result in God’s punishment.
Now Stephen turns his attention to the issue of the Jerusalem temple in verses 44-50. By tracing the history of the temple he reveals its true nature and purpose. The temple was built to house the tabernacle of the Testimony which God gave the Israelites in the desert. Look at verses 48-50. “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’” No temple made by man is capable of containing God, a fact, by the way, which none of Stephen’s opponents could deny. Stephen urges the religious leaders to see the God of the temple instead of the temple building itself.
PART II. YOU STIFF-NECKED PEOPLE (51-53)
Part II is the application. This is a hart part. At this point, Stephen breaks off the narrative of Scripture for a furious rebuke against the religious leaders out of his love for them. No doubt, Stephen knew he was risking his life. But Stephen did not think of himself. Stephen wanted to please God. Stephen wanted to save his spiritually blinded people from their sin. Stephen probably drew a deep breath. Then he made his application in verses 51-53. Let’s read together with deep breaths. “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him---you who received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” How could he dare to call the Sanhedrin members “you stiff-necked people”? How will you react if I call you “you stiff-necked people”? Of course, you will not stone me to death but some of you will be angry in your hearts. What does it mean to become stiff-necked people? According to the Webster dictionary, stiff-necked means ‘haughty or stubborn.” Have you seen stiff-necked people due to their neck injury? They walk strangely. They cannot turn their necks at all. Stiff-necked people refer to the proud people who know their sins but are unwilling to repent their sins. They are unbending and unrepentant. Stephen rebuked their hypocrisy and rebellion. They thought that they were sons of Abraham because they had a little bit of foreskin cut off even while their hearts were uncircumcised and their ears were closed. The true sons of Abraham are those who have a heart cleansed from ungodly desires and who have ears obedient to God. Jesus called them white washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean in Matthew 23:27. Like their fathers they fought the Holy Spirit. They were filled with rebellion and jealousy. His conclusion was “You have received a divine law and have not kept it.” He gave a recap of the facts of the ancient history of Israel which all his hearers were perfectly familiar with. Their biggest sin was that they killed the one whom the Law promised. Stephen plainly rebuked their sin of putting Jesus to death. Now the tables turned and the Sanhedrin members were in defense mode and Stephen was in offensive position. This speech, so true, so frank, terribly moved the minds of all who were in the council, so that their hearts were busting and they gnashed their teeth at him. They were quiet when Stephen observed the history of Israel but it was connected to them through the practical application, they were furious and emotional. Some historian said, “history repeats itself.” They did not learn from the mistakes of their fathers, they became like their fathers by stoning Stephen to death.
Last Sunday Mother Barry reminded us that America was founded with the Christian principles. George Washington likened to Abraham because he was a man of prayer. Abraham Lincoln was like Moses to free people from bondage of slavery. She said, “Our Pilgrim forefathers and the Puritans came with a vision to make this country like a city on a hill, to shine the light of the gospel into all the world. We should never forget that our country was built on the faith, prayer, courage and sacrifice of our forefathers. We are a great country because God has blessed us. We believe that God has a good purpose for our country. So we pray that God may make America a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Let’s ask you a serious question. Are we better than the Sanhedrin members? Are we different than those who nailed Jesus on the cross? The answer is that we are not better nor different unless we repent our sins. Many Americans forgot the grace of God in the midst of God’s blessing. Through this message I find that America is on trial. America is obsessed with sex and money. NFL became SFL. The sanctity of the marriage is challenged. The fabric of family is threatened due to so many broken families. Thousands babies aborted. Prayer is banned in the public schools. What does America need today? America needs God. America must become a Bible believing not money believing, God fearing not men fearing, missionary sending not military nation of faith.
PART III. THE STONING OF STEPHEN (54-60).
Part III is the testimony writing. When the Sanhedrin members heard Stephen’s plain rebuke, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at Stephen. But Stephen was not disturbed at all by them. He was ready to endure the worst, and following the example of Jesus Christ, he turned his eyes steadfastly to heaven. The sky is parted and Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (55). In the physical world, Stephen was in danger. But in the spiritual world, Stephen was with Jesus and he could see the glory of God. He did not remain silent about this before the ungodly accusers. Stephen said, “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (56).
At this, the religious leaders covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him (57,58). They lost their dignity and became lawless mobs. They cast him out of the city as if he had been convicted and condemned for blasphemy. They soon began to stone Stephen who did not resist. But while they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (59). He committed his spirit to Jesus. It was the moment of death. But Stephen was not overcome by the power of death. He saw Jesus right there with him. He joyfully surrendered his spirit to Jesus. He conquered death and entered into eternal life. His body was wracked with pain, but his spirit went to be with Jesus who crowned him with everlasting glory and victory and gave him inexpressible joy. As stones were flying from every direction, he bent his knees to the ground and with a loud voice and much feeling he cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (60) The love of God so filled his soul at his death. Jesus prayed for his murders in Luke 23:34a, “Father, forgive them.” Stephen’s heart was filled with God’s love. There was no bitterness in Stephen. There was no vengeance in Stephen. There was only the grace of forgiveness in Stephen. He truly wanted his enemies to be forgiven and to enter the same glorious rapture that he himself was entering.
When he had said this, he fell asleep (60). Stephen’s body was killed and the religious leaders were still alive. But Stephen’s spirit had revealed the glory of God while the religious leaders revealed the evilness of fallen men. Stephen’s act of martyrdom was the proof of God’s victory over death and that this victory is given to those who live by faith. Stephen blood became the seed of the Christian church. He was the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. His martyrdom was his life testimony. Can we write such a life testimony with sacrificial love? His flood was the source of encouragement for all martyrs who stood firm in the intense persecutions. It became a powerful catalyst in the eventual conversion of a young man named Saul, whom God had chosen as his servant for the next stage of gospel advancement.
In this passage we learned the faith and spirit of Stephen. Stephen’s faith was in Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. His faith was rooted and grounded in the God of Israel, the God of history. His faith was not theoretical, it was living, and it gave him victory over all the evil of the world and even over the power of death. We must learn the faith and spirit of Stephen. Let’s read the key verse 59.